Tag Archives: art

Bug Out

October 5, 2017 by
Photography by Dave Crane

Sexy moths flap their wings (and cleavage). Some dude dressed like a lightning bug flashes his butt. The audience swarms the stage at Midtown Art (formerly Midtown Art Supply)—with antennae, arms, and legs flailing—rocking to performances by local hardcore noise bands.

There are edible snacks made of insects. Bug-themed artwork covers the walls of the adjacent Harney Street Gallery. It’s like a mosquito trap for Omaha’s weirdest and most creative. But the main event? That would be the keynote bug lecture and photo slideshow by Dave Crane.

Crane—a wetlands biologist with the Army Corps of Engineers—is the co-founder and co-curator of the Omaha Bug Symposium, the strangest science-art-music combo this side of the topsoil.

Crane’s lecture is a psychedelic crash course in entomology (i.e., the study of insects), a legit science presentation packed with big words and Latin binomial names. His photo slideshow features beautiful imagery (zoomed and panned to show macro views of tiny insects like you’ve never seen before) along with ludicrous commentary.

At the 2016 event, Crane’s younger brother (Omaha artist Dan Crane) shouts a question, “Because I find them so fascinating, why are they called boring beetles?” The elder Crane responds to his brother, and other hecklers’ comments, with a genuine enthusiasm that is contagious.

His passion for bugs started at a young age. “I’ve been interested in nature, in general, all my life,” Crane says. “I was an adventurous, outdoorsy kind of kid. I wore holes in my clothes faster than anyone else I knew. Around the age of 7, I started attending week-long day camps at Fontenelle Forest and Neale Woods every summer. I think it was at these camps when I really honed in on bugs. I’d come home from the camps and start looking for the things I found while in the wild. Around this time, I started collecting bugs I’d find around my neighborhood. My parents picked up on this and started buying me field guides and insect preservation boxes. I started making my own collection tools, like a plastic bag duct taped to a long stick for catching butterflies and dragonflies. I had a terrarium out in the back yard that I would put captured praying mantids into to watch them fight, mate, and eat prey. I amassed a rather large insect collection—probably 40 species—by the time I was 12, but without knowing about proper preservation methods, the specimens were consumed by pests and all turned to dust.”

Discouraged by early attempts at insect preservation, Crane’s insectophilic tendencies lay dormant until roughly age 21. That’s when he received his first digital camera as a birthday gift.

“I was snapping away outside one day and noticed a damselfly on my car antennae,” he says. “I snapped a photo of it, and when I reviewed the image, it was like all the memories I had chasing bugs as a kid came rushing back to me. That moment revived my interest in bugs. I was hooked. Taking photos of all sorts of macroinvertebrates became my No. 1 hobby, if not obsession. From then on, I would dedicate more and more time to taking photos of bugs all around me—when I traveled, when I went camping, when I went to the bar, etc. I took photos for the sake of seeing things up close and learning about them, never really with the intention of printing them out as pieces of art.”

Crane’s photographic work captures the essence of bugs’ behavior, rather than focusing on images “that would look nice on a wall.” He prizes subject matter with informative storytelling potential over aesthetics.

Dave Crane. Photo by Bill Sitzmann

“I feel that presenting my photos in this style does them the most justice. I have some very high-definition photos, and they deserve to be blown up, zoomed in, and explored. The content in the photos is very well served by being plastered on a 10-foot-by-10-foot projector screen so every little detail can be magnified and scrutinized by the crowd. Before these bug shows, I started making calendars in 2007 for family and friends. Otherwise, I basically just stockpiled my photos for seven years—until I started showing them off as the bug shows.”

The 2017 Omaha Bug Symposium takes place at OutrSpaces (528 S. 24th St.) on October 7. It will be Crane’s fifth (and fourth annual) bug show. The inaugural event in 2014 went by the name “Nebraska Insect Showcase” because it was held at Midtown Art Supply the weekend following the Nebraska Hardcore Showcase.*

That first year of the event consisted of Crane “giving a two-hour presentation, followed by multiple sets of bug-themed noise bands, and topped off with one of the most bizarre, horrifying bug worship performance art piece I have ever witnessed,” he says. “It was a blast, so we started planning the second one instantly.”

The event’s format has since remained essentially the same. Bug food, bug art, and dance competitions joined the lineup in 2015.

The original Nebraska Insect Showcase co-organizer, Ethan Happe, parted ways with the event to focus more on entomophagy (eating insects). But Crane wasn’t ready to call it quits. He met Andy Matz in 2016 while planning his third bug show.

Matz, who has a degree in entomology, became a co-lecturer and co-organizer for the 2016 event, the first to go by the name “Omaha Bug Symposium.” Joining the party were bug costume contests, insect snacks prepared by local chefs, and kegs sponsored by Upstream Brewing Co.

Crane and Matz continued their collaboration in planning a special 2017 Omaha Moth Night to coincide with National Moth Week in July (which, despite the name, is a worldwide citizen science initiative encouraging the public to learn more about moths). Omaha Moth Night used the same Bug Symposium format with music, art, lecture, and costume contest.

“Ours had to be the weirdest National Moth Week event, but it fit right in with the spirit of the week, as well as the concept of the Omaha Bug Symposium,” Crane says. “The moth night really was a bit of an experiment just as much as it was something we were genuinely excited to put on. The turnout was similar to last year’s symposium, and I’d say we were highly successful in our attempts to interweave moth art, information, music, and the human connection with moths into a fun night for all.”

Attendance grows each year. Insect artworks continue to surprise. Meanwhile, Crane is thrilled to encourage others to share his love for bugs and the greater outdoors.

“A lot of people go ‘birding,’ but I go ‘bugging,’” Crane says, describing his photo-shooting sessions. “The most important part of bugging is to do it frequently. I think as you start out you’re just fascinated by everything, you’ll see a lot of things from angles and magnifications that you’ve never seen before. It’s like seeing the world the way it really is for the first time.”

Crane has developed what he refers to as “bug-eyes.” He’s usually the first (or only) person to spot a bug while out walking the streets or out in the field.

“If I’m walking through a field of weeds, I’m not searching for the next pretty flower, I’m subconsciously scanning every bit of green for that one bug-shaped discrepancy,” he says. “After so many years, I’m still fascinated with snapping a photo just to look at something around me close up. I love using my camera as a portable, photographic microscope, revealing truth that’s just beyond the naked eye.”

Visit facebook.com/omahabugsymposium for more information.

This article published in the 2017 September/October edition of Encounter Magazine.

*UPDATE: The host venue moved from Midtown Art and Harney Street Gallery to OutrSpaces after the publication of the issue. OutrSpaces is located at 528 S. 24th St. 

Mary Zicafoose

October 4, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The story of Mary Zicafoose—and her “Hope & Healing” tapestries—is one of unwavering focus, intensity, family tragedy, and a simple red scarf.

The world-renowned weaver’s two tapestries, each measuring 12 feet long and more than 9 feet wide, were recently unveiled in Omaha.

Not in a gallery. They’re in a hospital.

“Hope & Healing” hang in the lobby of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center. The words “hope” and “healing” are woven in 16 languages. The two tapestries greet those entering through the center’s front doors.

“It’s very powerful to put all who come into the cancer center at ease—from our patients, their families, staff, students, and visitors,” says Amy E. Jenson, executive director of the Healing Arts Program at the Buffett Cancer Center. The Healing Arts Program aspires to reduce pain perception, anxiety, and depression in cancer patients.

It took Zicafoose, with the help of three studio assistants, almost one year to create the two tapestries. They worked up to seven days a week in her separate wet and dry studios in Omaha. They worked daily in front of dye pots and looms. Her process, called ikat, which means “to wrap,” is methodical and intense. Ikat is a meticulous “resist dye” textile technique, measuring and stretching individual threads, grouping them into bundles, and wrapping portions of the bundles with fabric into a specific design. The threads are immersed in a dye bath, where the unwrapped areas soak up the dye while the wrapped areas resist it. All this happens before they are woven into a fabric. Precise measurement in the project was crucial, as the words “Hope” and “Healing” had to be wrapped, dyed, and woven exactly where the design specified. In the end, 1,000 skeins of yarn were used.

“Watch Mary working at her loom for just a couple of minutes, and you’ll witness this incredible connection between maker and material that a lot of young artists dream of achieving,” says Karin Campbell, Phil Willson Curator of Contemporary Art at Joslyn Art Museum. “She is deeply invested in not just the outcome of her weaving, but also the process. This commitment to the handmade and her willingness to toil sets Mary apart.”

In an artist statement on her website, Zicafoose describes the process as a “meditative activity that draws you in, not out. One that has triggered my memory of who I am and what I came to do.”

While at work on the project, Zicafoose says her thoughts often turned to family. To her brother. The one she lost.

Her brother died of cancer. The five panels of the two tapestries were, after all, destined to hang in a cancer center.

Zicafoose explains that his death fueled her perception of illness, and in a way, led to a mission that was years in the making.

“If there’s any way I can facilitate healing as an artist, I want to do it,” she says while seated in the contemporary lobby of the cancer center.

She did not take a direct route to get to this point.

Cancer took Zicafoose’s brother while they were both in high school in Michigan. Following the tragedy, everyone assumed she would be inspired to become a nurse, like her mother. But Zicafoose wasn’t interested in healing the world that way. Coming from a family of many artists, she gravitated toward creative therapy. 

She studied photography as an undergraduate at St. Mary’s College/University of Notre Dame and then moved to Chicago, working in clay as a graduate student. While still in graduate school, she married and moved to Nebraska. The young couple lived on her husband’s family farm outside of Mead.

One prophetic day, a studio neighbor invited her to sit at a loom.

Her first piece was far from perfect (“It was a simple little red mohair scarf,” she says). Nevertheless, seated in front of the loom, Zicafoose felt she had discovered her destiny. She describes the artistic epiphany as a switch turning on.

“I’m glad it was so clear,” she says.

Knowing nothing about weaving, she learned the way everyone else has for the past 2,000 years: one baby step at a time. From weaving simple scarfs she moved to blankets, then she began to make tablecloths—approaching each piece as a fine artist rather than a craftsman.

Early on, she had big ideas but lacked the ability to realize them—at least not yet. She joined the Hand Weaver’s Guild of Lincoln for guidance, and, through several years of hard work, her abilities finally caught up with her ideas.

“I envisioned doing large-scale, graphically impactful tapestries. That was always the mission,” she says. “And today I am there, which is really satisfying.”

Zicafoose’s work hangs in U.S. embassies around the world, and in galleries, corporations, and homes throughout the country, including the San Jose Museum of Quilts & Textiles. They also hang in museums closer to home at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha and the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. She teaches, writes articles, and has held leadership positions, including eight years as co-director of the board for the American Tapestry Alliance.

“In her leadership role with ATA, Mary spoke passionately and eloquently as an advocate for contemporary tapestry,” says Mary Lane, executive director of the American Tapestry Alliance. “She inspired a level of professionalism and commitment in those with whom she worked…Despite her very successful and demanding career as an artist, Mary is always willing to give more.”

Others echo similar sentiments about Zicafoose’s work and dedication.

“She’s someone who’s enjoyable to work with because of her intensity to her art,” says John Rogers, owner of Gallery 72, where Zicafoose’s work once hung.

“Every conversation I have with Mary reminds me of why I became a curator,” Joslyn’s Karin Campbell says. “She is skilled, generous, insightful, and, perhaps most importantly, she possesses an unwavering faith in the power of art.” 

Zicafoose explains her approach to the Buffett Center tapestries: “If you’re going to devote a year of your life to creating art for a building, the work must be powerful and the process so worth it.”

Zicafoose looks around the lobby of the cancer center, pausing to think about the work she’s done.

“We know that healing is a very complex paradigm, and Western medicine can only take us so far,” she says. “The arts are doorways to access subtle energy fields, that is what they do best. And if per chance the arts can carry and stimulate subtle energy for healing, then fill this place up with great art.”

Visit buffettcancercenter.com/facility/art-healing for more information about the Buffett Cancer Center where the “Hope & Healing” tapestries hang. Visit maryzicafoose.com for more information about the artist.

This article was printed in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

2017 September/October Exhibits

September 1, 2017 by
Photography by contributed

KINETIC, Through Oct. 14 at KANEKO, 1111 Jones St. KINETIC at KANEKO explores the art and science of movement, and the perception of motion. This collaborative exhibition will feature visual art, interactive sculpture, and experiential learning opportunities developed to strengthen the understanding of kinetics in everyday life. Admission: free. 402-341-3800.
thekaneko.org

“Move Over, Sir”: Women Working on the Railroad, Through Oct. 28 at Union Pacific Railroad Museum, 200 Pearl St., Council Bluffs. This exhibit traces the contributions that women have made to the railroad industry throughout the past 150 years. Admission: free. 712-329-8307.
uprrmuseum.org

A Century of Omaha Steaks: The Story of America’s Original Butcher, Through Nov. 11 at The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. This exhibit celebrates 100 years of one of Omaha’s most well-known businesses. Founded in 1917, today Omaha Steaks sells over 14 million pounds of beef annually to their 3 million active customers around the nation. The exhibit will showcase photographs, archival documents, and historic facts from the company archive. Admission: $11 adults, $8 seniors (62+), $7 children (3-12), free for children under 3. 402-444-5071.
durhammuseum.org

“A Momentous Collection” at The Durham Museum through Jan. 14

A Momentous Collection: Pivotal Moments in Byron Reed’s Lifetime, Through Jan. 14 at The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. Byron Reed established the first real estate agency in Omaha before Nebraska achieved statehood. In his spare time he had a passion for collecting rarities. Today, he is thought to be one of the greatest collectors of the 19th century. Admission: $11 adults, $8 seniors (62+), $7 children (3-12), free for children under 3. 402-444-5071.
durhammuseum.org

Christina Narwicz, Sept. 1-Oct. 20 at Fred Simon Gallery, 1004 Farnam St. This exhibit displays several works by local abstract painter Christina Narwicz. Admission: free. 402-595-2122.
artscouncil.nebraska.gov

Omaha North Hills Pottery Tour, Oct. 7-8 at various locations. The annual North Hills Pottery Tour starts at the Florence Mill before continuing northward to Dennison Pottery in Ponca Hills, Too Far North Wines in Fort Calhoun, and Big Table Studios in Herman. The tour features 19 local and national clay artists. The Florence Mill also features a pumpkin patch and bake sale. 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.
omahanorthhillspotterytour.com

Zoom Into Nano, Oct. 7-Jan. 7 at The Durham Museum, 801 S. 10th St. This new exhibit will magnify the microscopic world of nanotechnology by 100 million times with interactive exhibits, such as a virtual RNA molecule. Admission: $11 adults, $8 seniors (62+), $7 children (3-12), free for children under 3. 402-444-5071.
durhammuseum.org

Marks of Genius: 100 Extraordinary Drawings from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Oct. 7-Jan. 7 at Joslyn Museum, 2200 Dodge St. Drawings, watercolors, oil sketches, and pastels dating from the Middle Ages to the present day reveal the distinct hand and inspired touch of the most important artists from the past five centuries, including Guercino, Tiepolo, Delacroix, Degas, Kollwitz, Nolde, Hopper, and Ruscha. Tickets: $10 adults (18+), free for members, children, and college students with ID. 402-342-3300.
joslyn.org

Benefit Art Auction Exhibition, Oct. 14-27 at Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 724 S. 12th St. Preview works from more than 250 local, regional, and national artists selected to participate in this year’s benefit auction, the Bemis’ annual fundraiser. 402-341-7130.
bemiscenter.org

**Event times and details may change. Check with venue or event organizer to confirm.

Pigeon Bros

August 23, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Pigeon Bros.

It’s like watching two parts of the same brain. When Jack Blanket and Ryan Showers are together, it’s just the two of them, taking turns finishing each other’s sentences and stories. Their words flow back and forth, forming a single curse-word-laden stream of consciousness. But that’s not to say these brothers are free from a little sibling rivalry.

“Stop. Stop. STOP. Don’t draw on my drawing,” Blanket says as his pencil glides over paper, doodling out shaded shapes, while Showers makes a move to add his own creative contribution.

“I wouldn’t…” Showers begins.

“Wouldn’t be an ass? Yes, yes, you would,” Blanket continues.

Believe it or not, this exchange, like most of their conversations, is all said with deadpan, sarcastically saccharine love. To them, calling one another an ass is a compliment. While the duo play brothers, friends, and roomies in life, they’re yin and yang in the world of local Omaha art—Blanket an accomplished stop motion animator and Showers an eccentric and eclectic illustrator.

“As far as I know, we’ve always been drawing and creating,” says Blanket, the younger sibling by approximately one year. “There’s always been paper and pencil around.”

Born and raised across the river in Council Bluffs, Blanket and Showers are just two of eight siblings, each one living in different parts of the country, all of them dabbling in art either full-time or for fun. However, given their upbringing, it’s no surprise the family is now made up of everything from illustrators and animators to video game creators and programmers. They were homeschooled by their mother, who based her curriculum largely on creative expression. Their father illustrated.

Even though their childhood was awash in arts, crafts, doodles, and drawings, the two brothers didn’t graduate high school as mini Monets. It was through years of self-learning and discovery that their artistic talents began to bloom.

Blanket taught himself to animate through online tutorials. After all, who needs a fancy-shmancy liberal arts degree when you’ve got Google and YouTube as professors? Years of plugging and playing and numerous “crashed crappy computers” later, Blanket acquired the skills to land freelance animation work.

He’s made several animated games and music videos for local musicians and labels, One of his favorites was for a Chicago-based hip-hop and soul group, Sidewalk Chalk. Though simple, his flashing red, white, and black drawings in the video for their song “Dig” helps bring to life the message behind the lyrics, which details the effect media has on the public’s perception of police violence.

“To create it, you just go step-by-step, line-by-line, translating lyrics to images,” Blanket says. “Three minutes might really be three months of work.”

As for his artistic name, a high school girlfriend’s mother created it in an instant years ago. She said she knew too many Nathans, his real name, and chose to call him Jack Blanket instead. More than a decade later and the moniker has survived, further separating his work and artistic identity from his brother.

“We’re cut from the same cloth but we really are very different, both personally and with our art,” Blanket says.

One glance at their work and any viewer would agree. Showers steers clear of animation, instead creating detailed drawings, often sparse in color but big in imagination. Haunting images of monsters, animals in human clothes, and cartoonish people, he’s done it all.

“My process is much slower than my brother’s. I’ll start by making a rough skeleton and then sit on it for a really long time,” Showers says. “Music, my medicine, is always a huge catalyst to get me going.”

Beyond the musical styling of bands like King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, Showers is inspired by anime and fashion magazines, which he spent hours copying and drawing to perfect his craft.

“Life is f***ed sometimes, so I strive to create work that takes people somewhere else,” Showers says. “The potency of expanding imagination is so valuable. Maybe my pieces help with that.”

While he avoids collaborations, including with his brother, Showers aspires to create pop-up shops around town that feature work from a variety of local creators. For now, he shows pieces for sale in Caffeine Dreams and uses his Instagram as an online portfolio to market himself and gain more work. By displaying animations on YouTube, Blanket harnesses the power of social media.

“Artists need to have an online presence now,” Blanket says. “As a low-level artist, you do a lot better putting yourself out there and responding to your audience through these mediums.”

When they’re not turning news feeds into galleries, the two brothers share an apartment but hardly see one another. Showers admittedly disappears for days, often to look high and low for inspiration, even sifting through dumpsters and exploring vacant buildings. Since art isn’t always a field filled with money, especially for up-and-coming creators, the two spend even more time apart working odd jobs to pay rent.

“We’ve grown accustomed to a humble lifestyle,” Showers says. “I’m willing to wash dishes for a living if it means I can have an imagination.”

So when they get together, it’s a nostalgic celebration. On a particularly warm June day, the siblings got the chance to share an afternoon on the back patio of Caffeine Dreams. Showers veiled his eyes from the gleaming sun with oversized sunglasses while Blanket embraced the warmth, sitting outside the shade with his painted fingernails gleaming in the light. Just as with art, the two take different paths, each enjoying the summer day in their own way.

While you may not see pom-poms at their sides as they sip coffee and share memories, these two really are one another’s biggest cheerleaders, bonded by blood and a love for all things creative.

“Our fields are so highly different,” Showers says. “In my mind, there is no competition, no rivalry, no…”

“No reason not to be supportive,” Blanket finishes. “There’s just mutual respect.”

Visit instagram.com/thee_owl or instagram.com/score6 to view more of Pigeon Brothers’ art.

This article appears in the September/October 2017 edition of Encounter Magazine.

Pigeon Brothers

Lunch With Buffett

August 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

With food-inspired songs such as “Charleston’s,” “Medium Rare,” and the album’s title track, the duo displays a penchant for sweet-sounding beats and aspirations to dine with Omaha’s most affluent resident, Warren Buffett.

They speculate that arranging lunch with the local billionaire would be easier than getting airplay on local radio stations.

“We want to be heard,” Big Tate says. “The radio DJ abides by guidelines that [forbid] touching the streets. They are afraid to challenge the norm.”

“Radio is stagnant,” Absolut-P adds. “It isn’t as influential as it once was. If we want to make an impact, we’d be better off putting together a lunch with Warren Buffett and creating a buzz from that.”

Or maybe just make up a song about having lunch with Buffett.

Big Tate

That sort of creative thinking would be the driving force behind Absolut-P (aka Stevin Taylor) and Big Tate (aka James Buckley) collaborating on the album.

The idea came from another friend’s fateful encounter with Buffett at a now-closed Omaha steakhouse known to be one of Buffett’s favorite local restaurants.

“A friend of mine happened to be eating at Piccolo Pete’s when she called to tell me that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates were sitting across from her,” Big Tate recalls. “I told her that I needed her to get a picture of them by any means. I’m always thinking of ways to promote our music with imagery and catchy choruses. I was sure that I could come up with a song for that image.”

Big Tate was familiar with Buffett’s history of auctioning off a “power lunch” for charity. In 2016, an anonymous bidder paid $3,456,789 for the experience, with the money going to benefit the Glide Foundation, a San Francisco nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless and underprivileged residents.

For months, Big Tate continued to stew over his idea. Later in 2016, he partnered with local producer Absolut-P (the P stands for “Perfection”), and they were able to create an infectious melody.

The song’s music video even featured a faux cameo by Buffett (thanks to a cut-out photograph of the billionaire’s face pasted over one of their friends).

They consider it an homage to the wealthy hometown hero.

“We’re from the north side of Omaha, and you don’t see those types of people on the north side,” Big Tate explains. “Other than Bud Crawford, it’s hard to relate to anyone on such a big stage. It’s good to look up to self-made men.”

Absolut-P

“As independent artists, Warren Buffett’s entrepreneurial spirit gives us a sense of self-pride,” Absolut-P says. “He shows us that by investing in ourselves we can reap big rewards.” 

One such investment involved professional mastering for the album by Rick Carson at Make Believe Studios. Absolut-P and Big Tate hope the song resonates with fans of hip-hop, Omaha, and Buffett alike. They released the album Dec. 31, 2016 (with a parental advisory warning for explicit content).

“The album-making process was so organic,” says Big Tate, explaining that hip-hop works best when pursued in a natural, fun way. “We just made songs about what we like; everyone likes to eat at a nice restaurant and order a good prime rib. That made us think of Charleston’s; they have some of the best steaks in Omaha. I like my steak well-done, but I’ve heard that they are very good medium-rare.”

When asked where they would like to take Buffett for lunch, both agree that Time Out Foods or The Taste’s of Soul Cafe would be a good place to accommodate them.

“I’m sure Warren Buffett is used to eating at the finest establishments,” Absolut-P says. “I’d want to give him a taste of our roots with some good food for the soul.”

Find Big Tate on Twitter at @BigTate402 and Absolut-P at @IAmAbsolutP. Both musicians frequently release new songs on social media. Their respective Soundcloud accounts are soundcloud.com/big-tate and soundcloud.com/absolut-p. Lunch with Buffett is available on iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, Spinrilla, Google Play, and YouTube. Copies are sold at Homer’s in downtown Omaha.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

*Editor’s note: The printed edition misspelled Taylor’s first name as Steven.

Bringing Meaningful Design Conversations to Omaha

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Architecture as an intellectual endeavor extends far beyond brick-and-mortar structures. For designer Andrew Conzett, architecture is a form of problem-solving and way to rewrite immediate questions about the built environment through a culturally sensitive lens. Early in his career, he positioned his curiosity at one of Omaha’s most creatively focused firms, developed numerous discipline-blurring projects, and helped curate a robust series of lectures with the Omaha chapter of the American Institute of Architects. This fusion of localized projects and international discourse is one that not only pushes his own practice forward, but also challenges existing norms and perceptions of regional architecture.

Conzett grew up in Omaha. Since a young age, he was inspired by his father, a civil engineer at a large international firm, and his mother, who was consistently involved with social service and nonprofit organizations. As a soon-to-be licensed architect, Conzett is a cocktail of both. He has always been keenly interested in art and landscape, both of which were influential in his childhood years and helped to inform his atypical response to the “I-always-wanted-to-be-an-architect” story ubiquitous amongst peers (many say it was from building with LEGO bricks as a child). During high school, a design competition piqued his interest. This community-focused extracurricular project, which combined multi-disciplinary teamwork and a design-based approach, prompted him to apply to the College of Design at Iowa State University.

While at Iowa State, his intense studio assignments were mixed with conversations and projects with artists and creative thinkers. Working alongside a diversity of artistic studies pushed him to see the multiplicity of architecture. During his final year in the architecture program, one of Conzett’s classmates responded to his non-binary projects by asking, “Do you want to be an installation artist or architect?” Conzett did not know how to respond; however, this prompt of either/or has now become a defining feature of his practice.

While studying, Conzett diversified his architectural coursework with internships at the Omaha Public Library and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, where he interned with artist Sean Ward and curator Hesse McGraw. After graduating in 2010, he moved to Omaha and was soon commissioned to design an office pod installation at the headquarters of Bozell. The project resulted in a spatial intervention that was recognized by the AIA Central States Region’s Excellence in Design Awards for “Detail Honor and the Interior Design Best of Year Award for Budget Interiors.”

His interests in a diverse range of project types brought him to his current position at Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture in 2011. At the collaborative open studio in north downtown where architects work alongside interior designers, graphic designers, artists, and engineers, Conzett is staying busy outside the office as well.

His CV for research-based and experimental projects is dense. Stepping one foot outside the firm, Conzett has worked collaboratively on award-winning projects with Emerging Terrain, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Council Bluffs Park System, including River’s Edge Park. Each project allows him to intensely research form, material, and site. They also provide an instant design-to-built-project process that allows ideas to come to fruition faster than with traditional design-bid-build projects, which often take years to complete. These research-based projects also speak to his interest in architecture as built form that has the ability to blur lines between disciplines and methodologies.

For Conzett, “contemporary architecture practice requires thinking about new methods and materials, and thus inspires me to seek out unique project types as a way to expand my knowledge of design and the built environment.”

His most recent endeavor, the AIA Omaha lecture series, conflates his efforts in community activities and intellectual pursuits. Organized in collaboration with Ross Miller and other AIA Omaha members, the 2017 lecture series is a thought-provoking forum for design thinking. Bringing in award-winning international and national architects, such as Mike Nesbit of Morphosis in Los Angeles and Kai-Uwe Bergmann of Bjarke Ingles Group in Copenhagen, the role of these lectures are two-fold. First, they are an opportunity for professional architects and the general public to participate in architectural discourse. Secondly, the lectures provide a voice for a range of architectural practices that are advancing disciplinary boundaries.

While the series may seem hyper-niche, the visiting lecturers produce a diverse range of project types. These architects discuss the scholarly and tactile impact of design beyond simply making buildings. As award-winning content creators, the lecturers stimulate the public and challenge architects to aim their work to an elevated level of design excellence.

“It is always good to hear professionals talk about their design process and work,” says Emily Andersen, owner of DeOld Andersen Architecture. “But it is even more important to have lecturers come to Omaha that are truly challenging assumptions. The lectures bring the potential of a meaningful conversation that allows us to see into the creative process of other design professionals. And so I really appreciate the work that AIA does, as well as Design Alliance Omaha to help bring that discourse here.”

In all of his work, Conzett is running against the boundaries of the discipline with a keen understanding that traditional definitions of architecture and the built environment deserve to be challenged and pushed forward. “Opportunities such as professional work with [Alley Poyner], design-build exhibition and installation commissions, and the AIA Omaha lecture series are all ways for me to continue to experiment with and better understand the practice of architecture,” he says.

Visit aiaomaha.org/lecture-series for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Nathan Miller

August 6, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Nate Miller is changing the world of architecture. It is hard to imagine, looking at the bald, bespectacled 30-something wearing clean, dark jeans and working quietly in a coffee shop.

“I think the business industry and the world of construction is ripe for disruption,” Miller says.

He is disrupting this industry through data mining. The building industry comprises several professions—architects, engineers, construction managers, and more. Creating buildings involves using software for computer-aided design, conceptual modeling, building information, and many other components. While software companies have complete packages for the building industry, the separate industries often prefer one software over another, so an architecture company that designs a building using Revit (Autodesk’s CAD program) may not be able to connect their information with an engineering company that uses Bentley’s Reliability, Availability, and Maintainability program. The result is a lot of time spent translating programs. The software companies aren’t interested in creating translation programs—that’s where Miller and his company, Proving Ground, comes in.

“[The building industry] is shifting into much more integrated practices. Nate’s role is in developing new techniques,” says Jeff Day, professor and director of the architecture program at UNL as well as principal at his own firm, Min | Day.

“A lot of softwares already have connection points built into them. Ways in which, at a programming level, you can begin to access a document, or part of a document, and extract data,” Miller says.

Proving Ground builds tools, often in the form of plug-ins, that tap into those connection points. They customize their products for individual architecture clients based on their needs, such as having a business client with a lean budget or needing access to daylight.

This ability to connect systems is helping to drive the world of design by data. “There are so many ways that one can, whether with data and tech, or fabrication concepts and prefabrication, use data,” Miller says.

Miller discovered this passion by learning. He graduated from UNL with a master’s in architecture in 2007 and began working for NBBJ Design in Los Angeles. As he built a design portfolio, he became interested in how to leverage data to help his own computations and design processes.

His ability to prove this came when he worked as the lead designer on the stadium at Hangzhou Sports Park in China. The shell was created in a series of aesthetically pleasing steel flower petals, which used less steel than a more traditional steel cover. The bowl was created from concrete. The company liked that this progressive design also reduced costs by using 2/3 less steel than a stadium of comparable size.

That progressive project proved to Miller that data-driven design worked well. He began thinking about implementing data-driven design on a wider range of products—just as CASE Inc. in New York, a building information and technology consultancy, called him with a job offer.

Miller wasn’t thinking about the Big Apple. He was thinking about the Big O. He wanted to come home. CASE agreed to let him work from Omaha, and Miller continued learning, and using, data-driven design as director of architecture and engineering solutions.

CASE’s clients at WeWork were also using data-driven research for a specific area of architecture and real estate. They focus on subscription-based co-work environments for startups.

WeWork learned their eight-person conference rooms were frequently booked for groups of four or five people. They researched why people were meeting in smaller groups, and discovered what those people needed—number of electrical outlets, club chairs vs. desk chairs and a table, etc. WeWork then started providing less space for conference rooms and more space for desks.

WeWork acquired CASE in 2015, and Miller, who now discovered he enjoyed consulting and working on the tech side, decided to create Proving Ground.

“I think he has a good sense of where the opportunities are in his practice,” Day says. “He’s more like a tech startup than an architect, so he’s coming at this as an architect, but in a tech way.”

Visit provingground.io for more information.

This article was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Weird Is Good

July 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Since transplanting from Pennsylvania nearly a decade ago, Christopher Vaughn Couse has made the observation that Omaha is downright weird—but in a good way.

From the hipster-laden streets of Benson to the apex of West Omaha’s suburbs, where cul-de-sacs meet cornfields—and of course there’s our friendly local billionaire, Mr. Buffett, who you may just spot snacking on a Dilly Bar—Couse is right: There’s no place like Homaha. As an artist, to pay homage to all the things that make Omaha, well, Omaha, Couse painted a simple black-and-white design with text that reads “Keep Omaha Good Weird.” It was part of Benson First Friday’s Tiny Mural Project.

“It’s about celebrating the city’s diversity and everyone’s willingness to embrace others for doing their own thing,” Couse says. Of course, it’s also a mix of the almost-revoked Nebraska mantra, “The Good Life,” and the “Keep Austin/Portland Weird” slogans.

If you’ve walked the streets of Benson or Dundee, stopped in at one of the latest oh-so-trendy and oh-so-healthy Eat Fit Go restaurants, or are familiar with the Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s “We Don’t Coast” campaign, you’ve likely seen Couse’s work. He may not be a Nebraska native, but with roots firmly planted in this city, his work as a freelancer, photographer, and illustrator seems to be sprouting up everywhere.

And that’s pretty darn good for a self-described “art school dropout.” It took just two years of classes in the art photography program at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania for Couse to discover he needed to try a different path —and eventually a different city—to forge his career. Determined to utilize his keen eye and knack for creative styling as a professional artist, he knew it was time to move on from the world of lectures and syllabi when a professor told him art photography was a dead-end job.

“Just like that, tuition money became payments for nicer photography equipment,” Couse says.

Just because Couse was done with school didn’t mean he was done with education. He took his lack of professional training as a chance to personally develop his craft and began learning new mediums.

While he had been taking photographs since his teen years, the next evolution of his artistry came when he began combining his shots with handwritten notes to make collages. Then came illustrating and painting, then printmaking, and even working on zines. One glance at his Instagram, @christography, and you could argue he’s made social media his next canvas.

“I delve into different genres of art, figure out what I like, and begin incorporating these aesthetics into my own work,” Couse says. “I’ll admit, I have a bad problem of not sticking with one thing and instead trying to tackle a lot of things.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any similarities across mediums. Stylistically, his work is usually filled with color, idiosyncratic humor, and his emotions as each piece reflects what he was feeling when it was created. Thematically, he regularly combines text with imagery, and he’s often inspired by the conversations, people, and the city surrounding him.

For one of his most popular series, a combination of party gossip and local lore inspired him. Shortly after moving, he heard boozed-up friends describing metro movers and shakers as “Omaha Famous.” Using his love for pop culture, he decided to borrow this phrase and started illustrating portraits of actual famous people who were born in Omaha. Perhaps nowhere else will you find a collection that includes the likes of activist Malcolm X, President Gerald R. Ford, and Lady Gaga’s ex and “cool Nebraska guy” Lüc Carl. There’s even a coloring book available online, so you too can shade the mugs of Conor Oberst and Marlon Brando for only $4.

“What I love about Omaha—and why it inspires me—is it has a small-town feel but in a big-city atmosphere. I haven’t found that elsewhere,” Couse says.

Couse has further made an impact in the community through his creative freelance work. Often collaborating with branding agency Secret Penguin, he’s helped design packaging for Eat Fit Go, design signs for Flagship Commons, and developed promotional material for
“We Don’t Coast.”

As if all that combined with balancing a full-time retail job and playing daddy to a newborn wasn’t enough, he also preps collections of his work to show at local galleries, with a recent exhibit at Harney Street Gallery.

“I’m always searching for ways I can do better in life, better in my craft,” Couse says.

With Omaha and all of its oddities keeping him so busy, art projects get done when he can find the time. If one makes him a sweet penny, then great. If not, that’s A-OK with Couse, too.

“My end goal is to have fun and inspire other people to create things,” Couse says. “It’s not complicated. I just hope my art makes people smile for even a second.”

And there’s nothing downright weird about that at all.

Visit christophervaughncouse.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August 2017 edition of Encounter.

Christopher Couse

June 15-18 Weekend Picks

June 15, 2017 by

PICK OF THE WEEK—Thursday, June 15: David Sedaris is back in Omaha and ready to draw you a little something to remember him by. Sedaris will be speaking and signing books at The Bookworm TONIGHT, promoting his latest book, Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002. The line forms at 5 p.m. Outside seating will be available and he will sign autographs. The acclaimed author is always a big draw, so be prepared to wait in line for one of his signature “signatures.” But regardless of how far back you are, don’t worry: He’s there for as long as it takes to greet everyone. To find out more, go here.

Friday, June 16: The standup scene in Omaha is slowly but surely growing, with special help from The Backline comedy theater downtown. But this weekend you can head to The Sydney in Benson to catch Gay Standup Comedy: Pride Edition. This is a recurring show that normally happens on the third Saturday of every month at The Backline and includes LGBT comics and allies of the LGBTQIA community. If you haven’t had a chance to check out the scene, now is the time. Show starts at 9 p.m. For more information, click here.

Friday, June 16: It’s that time of  year again, when Omaha becomes the home of college baseball and you start overhearing Southern drawls asking for sweet tea. And since the CWS moved to NoDo, Slowdown has been a go-to spot for all the fans looking for a break from the stands. This Friday DJ Werd and Satchel Grande play a free “dance party” for those fans and for anyone else willing to brave the heat and the crowds. To check out all Slowdown has to offer during the series, click here.

Saturday, June 17: If you want to avoid the crowds downtown this weekend, now is the perfect time to check out what Stinson Park in Aksarben has to offer this summer. The Stinson Concert Series brings local bands to the park for free Saturday evening shows throughout the summer. This week’s free show starts at 7 p.m. and will feature cover band Finest Hour. So get out and get down this weekend. To see what else is going on at Aksarben, take a look at the calendar here.

Saturday, June 17: Start Pride Week off right by checking out the Heartland Pride Parade in Council Bluffs this Saturday at 10 a.m. The parade kicks off a week-long celebration of LGBTQIA people and culture here in the Midwest, but it is just the beginning. To find out about other Pride events or to volunteeer, head here and see how you can become “alive with pride.”

Sunday, June 18: For those whose fathers could care less about baseball, the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum is offering free admission this Sunday for Dads who want to spend Father’s Day checking out some cool planes and maybe taking a crawl through the C-47 Skytrain. This is a family outing, so sorry if you were looking to escape, Dads. The kids have to be with you if you want to qualify for the free entry. For full details, buzz on over here.

Sunday, June 11: Still trying to figure out what to get your dad for Father’s Day? How about a rescue dog? This Sunday, Taysia Blue Rescue will have volunteers hanging out from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. at The Green Spot with some of their adoptable huskies and malamutes. They will answer any questions you might have about what it takes to become a rescue parent for these lovable creatures. For more info, click here.

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Seamus Campbell Takes the Stage

June 14, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Like so many kids, 9-year-old Seamus Campbell loves The Jungle Book. He’s one of countless children to be enchanted by the thought of boppin’ around the jungle with cool, scat-singing Baloo, relishing the “Bare Necessities” that can make life so grand.

But he’s not just another kid imagining himself to be Mowgli, the freewheeling man-cub searching for his place in the jungle. This year, Campbell became Mowgli.

Omaha Performing Arts’ Disney Musicals in Schools program, produced in collaboration with Disney Theatrical Group, let Campbell and some of his Harrison Elementary classmates take on the role of storyteller and perform in their own production of The Jungle Book.

Campbell, who played the role of Mowgli, uses words like “proud” and “fun” a lot when describing his experience.

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Campbell’s love of The Jungle Book—particularly Disney’s 1967 animated movie version—was his original inspiration to participate. He describes Mowgli as “very stubborn,” but says his character learns “a whole lot, like trusting your friends and listening to others.”

Kathleen Lawler Hustead, Omaha Performing Arts’ education manager, says her team kicked off the program for the 2016/2017 school year, letting third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students from five OPS elementary schools explore musical theater from a new angle. Omaha Performing Arts is the 13th arts organization in the nation to implement the Disney Musicals in Schools program, which began in 2009.

“Disney only selects performing arts organizations with strong education departments, so we were thrilled to be among the select few brought into the program,” Lawler Hustead says.

The program is designed for sustainability, so Disney-trained, local teaching artists work with each school in its first year to develop school team members into music directors, choreographers, and stage managers, with the skills and confidence to continue the program when the teaching artists transition to the next batch of first-year schools.

“The great part about this program is it will continue for many years to come,” Lawler Hustead says, noting that after schools complete year one, they move to alumni status and continue to receive support and free or discounted materials in subsequent years. “We’ll add five new schools each year, with the eventual goal of nearly every elementary school in the Omaha area, and potentially beyond, having these sustainable musical theater programs.”

“It’s been so fun,” Campbell says. “Mowgli gets a lot of lines and gets to move around a lot. I like the dancing, running around, talking, getting to put on costumes…It’s fun that we all get to know each other better.”

Participating elementary schools are chosen based on need and commitment to sustaining the program in coming years. In addition to Harrison performing The Jungle Book, Omaha’s other Disney Musicals in Schools pioneers were Crestridge, Kennedy, and Wilson Focus—each performing The Lion King—and Liberty performing Aladdin.

After 17 weeks of preparation and rehearsal, Campbell and the other participating students performed the 30-minute shows at their schools. They also performed select songs at an all-school Student Share Celebration, produced by Omaha Performing Arts and held at the Holland Center.

“I am so proud of our kids and staff,” Harrison Principal Andrea Haynes says. “It just shows you that kids have this capacity and latent talent, and it’s our job to give them opportunities to cultivate that.”

Teaching artists Kelsey Schwenker and Sarah Gibson coached the Harrison team, which consisted of (director) fourth grade teacher Callen Goodrich, (music director) first grade teacher Anna Rivedal, (choreographer) librarian Rachel Prieksat, (stage manager) parent Danielle Herzog, (costume and set designer) paraprofessional Elizabeth Newman, and (production assistant) school secretary Linda Davey.

While the team successfully conjured Disney magic, there was much more to it than a simple flick of Tinker Bell’s wand. The school team and students devoted many extra hours of hard work and practice. Campbell is quick to agree that being in a musical is part work and part play—so what made him want to devote extra time between busy school days and evening Boy Scouts meetings?

“To make everyone like the play,” he says. “Since my parents and everyone are going to see it, I want to do a good job and make my family proud.”

Campbell’s eyes light up when he describes seeing the set and costumes for the first time.

“When the door opened, we saw there were vines, plants, and a rock—and it was raining glitter!” Campbell says.

The Harrison team created a vibrant jungle atmosphere and costumed the cast into a believable band of panthers, monkeys, snakes, tigers, wolves, bears, and, of course, one “man-cub.” At the Student Share, the creative, colorful costumes on display from all the schools were second only to the students’ enthusiasm.

“It’s been so inspiring to see what this program does for students and teachers, and to watch the students light up and grow over the process,” Lawler Hustead says. “Not only are they learning to sing, dance, and act, they’re learning critical thinking skills, problem-solving, communication, self-confidence, and how to be a team player.”

Campbell, who also loves Star Wars, football, and Percy Jackson, says his experience taught him to be brave and, of course, that the show must always go on.

“[If you mess up], you just redo the line or skip by that line,” he says confidently.

Haynes says exposing young kids to the arts fosters an important self-reliance.

“It can plant the seed in them that they can do anything,” she says. “That sense of self-confidence is so important in this world, and will carry you through all kinds of obstacles.”

Visit omahaperformingarts.org for more information.

This article was published in the May/June 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Seamus Campbell